Friday, September 23, 2005

What to do In Iraq?

Greg Djeregian over at Belgravia Dispatch last week posted a long rumination on what is to be done in Iraq. I recommend it as the most thoughtful (if long-winded) possible defense of what the U.S. must do going forward if it is to achieve neocon strategic goals. Clear-eyed about the need to establish security as the starting point for anything else worthwhile in Iraq, Greg has long argued that the U.S. should radically increase its ground presence in Iraq, if needs be to lock the place down by putting a soldier on every street corner.

Greg calls for us "to put the past behind us and try to dwell in the realm of the practical." Amen to that. So let's get practical. What "practically" it would mean for the United States to radically increase our commitments in Iraq? To begin with, we must acknowledge that what we face in Iraq, under best case circumstances, is a five year (and perhaps far longer) counterinsurgency campaign. Since per Greg's dictum we're remaining in the realm of the practical, we must also acknowledge that a 5+ year counterinsurgency campaign is likely to completely undo the American Army as it is currently constituted. Indeed, Greg even quotes Anthony Cordesman referencing the problem ("If the President has the magic wand necessary to create new forces, and is willing to ignore the impact on our all volunteer force structure of increasing deployments....") but then passes it right by and keeps calling for more troops. In short, if we are to remain in the realm of the practical, as Greg exhorts, then we must begin with the fact that American ground forces are facing a manpower and morale crisis of unprecedented proportions.

To get a sense of just how dire the situation really is, let me quote at length from an article by Jim Hoagland in last month's Washington Post:

Iraq has also brought into sharp focus the costs of the decision by Vietnam-era generals to embed critical skills in reserve and National Guard units to force the call-up of citizen soldiers in an extended conflict. The commanders reasoned that this would bar political leaders from pursuing wars that did not have substantial public support.

But the effect of this decision was to load into the reserves the civil affairs, psychological warfare and other specialized units important to fighting low-intensity conflicts or nation-building. The debate over how many U.S. troops should be in Iraq is a legitimate and important one. But it obscures the equally vital point that the United States does not have available enough of the kind of troops it needs to deploy in Iraq in any event.

Some retired and active-duty senior officers fear that another year of combat duty in urban areas of the Sunni Triangle will break the military cohesiveness and morale of the regular Army, Reserve and National Guard units being rotated into Iraq on multiple tours. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey says the National Guard already is "in the stage of meltdown and within 24 months will be coming apart."

McCaffrey sounded that alarm in testimony and a compelling memorandum he submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 18 after a wide-ranging trip to Iraq in June. He predicted the United States would succeed in Iraq -- but added that it would take five years and dramatic changes in the way the American military and diplomatic establishments conduct business there.

His memorandum reinforces the impression that the U.S. transitional authority essentially wasted its 18 months in effective power and helped create "a weak state of warring factions" that still has to get on its feet. Understaffing and too rapid turnover by the State Department as well as the Pentagon have created a crippling lack of continuity for the decisive months ahead, McCaffrey wrote.

Such concern is driving a dramatic shift in U.S. military planning in Iraq. An emerging aim is to reduce the damage being inflicted on America's armed forces as an institution. It is the structural damage -- the hollowing out of America's military -- that most concerns McCaffrey and other military leaders. Reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq's contested urban areas by the summer of 2006 is now a key component of that planning.

The origins of this crisis of the American armed forces is intimately related to the domestic and international political circumstances of the war itself. Internationally, the diplomatic failure to secure widespread support for the war from most of the other Great Powers (and it was a failure, no matter who deserves the blame) is a major reason why the U.S. didn't get more troop support in theater.

Domestically, moreover, Bush has signally failed to demand of the American people an iota of personal sacrifice on behalf of the war. How much time has Bush spent exhorting people to enlist? I can't recall him do it even once. Why is that? There's actually a very good answer to that question: it's because the GWOT has been relentlessly marketed as being about preserving "the American way of life" (as idealized by Republicans) down to the smallest detail, up to and specifically including shopping sprees in SUVs. Despite all the windy bullshit about America's mission to liberate the world, the practical message of the Bush regime has been: this is a war to prove to the terr'rists that we can kill 'em without changing one iota of our behavior. And while that might seem like a position of moral clarity, and is certainly one that sells well during campaigns, it's also not a message that sends the kids running down to the local Army recruiter's office. (Put it in personal terms: Pat Tillman made headlines precisely because his choice to give up his comfortable life at home was so unusual; the contrast could not be sharper between Tillman and the vast majority of pro-warriors, who experience no cognitive dissonance or sense of hypocrisy as they cheerlead for war despite disinclining to sign themselves up for duty.)

It also must be pointed out that this crisis of the American armed forces is leading directly to strategic compromises in other theatres. As I commented earlier today, the wingnutosphere has been thunderingly silent on the radical policy reversal the Bush regime has adopted in North Korea. But let's pause for a second and ask ourselves, why are the Bushies doing this deal with NoKo now? Is it because they suddenly had a change of heart and believe that "we can do business" with a madman like Kim? Is it because they've suddenly starting loving international agreements? Seems pretty unlikely, I think most would agree.

Instead, the explanation for why the Bushies agreed to almost everything Kim has been demanding for the last five years is that they have no choice. Debunked is Rumsfeld's prewar bravado about the American capacity for fighting multiple simultaneous full-scale campaigns. If the Iraq war was designed to show that the U.S. meant business, it has instead neutered our ability to deliver the business: the idea that the U.S. could credibly threaten another war of choice is at this point risible. In short, we've spent our military wad in Iraq for a mess of geopolitical pottage.

What Greg and all other pro-warriors generally fail to do is to roll up all their exhortations to stay the course into a wider strategic discussion of feasibility and means and tradeoffs. If Greg and the other neocons are going to insist that we dwell in the realm of the practical, then it's time for them to start being a lot more forthright about the true costs and benefits of continuing the GWOT, as currently incarnated -- in terms of both large-scale domestic sacrifice, and diversion of resources from other significant long-range threats. In sum, what's missing from Greg's otherwise exhausting post is an engagement with the question of who should pay, and how, the enormous costs of staying the course.

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